by Cynthia Citron
Her email address begins with “nifttt”, which she says stands for “nothing is funnier than the truth.” (It could also stand for “nifty,” which she most certainly is.) For actor/director Jenny O’Hara, it’s a serious mantra. As it is for her hilariously entertaining husband, actor Nick Ullett.
Los Angeles theater lovers get the chance to sample their superior skills—and the magic they create by acting together — in Stephen Sachs’ new play Bakersfield Mist. Sachs, the co-founder (with Deborah Lawlor) of the award-winning Fountain Theatre, also directed this premiere at the Fountain.
Bakersfield Mist is a comedy inspired by true events, in which a former truck driver from Orange County contended that the painting she purchased in a San Bernardino junk shop for $5 in 1992 was an undiscovered Jackson Pollock, and several art experts supported her position. (Remember — “nothing is funnier than the truth”).
In Sachs’ play, the story has moved to Bakersfield, and the former truck driver is a former bartender. Enter Lionel Percy (Ullett), a New York art expert, to evaluate the “masterpiece.” What follows is a classic conflict over truth, value, and the meaning of art.
Sachs, who admits he was “excited by the idea of a bawdy, colorful, foul-mouthed character who clashes with a sophisticated know-it-all art expert,” wrote the play with O’Hara and Ullett in mind. “It was their voices I heard in my head,” he says.
O’Hara, who has one of those faces you recognize instantly (because, like Kevin Bacon, she’s been in just about everything), was born in Sonora, California, “but,” she says, “I only stayed there a week.” Instead, she grew up in upstate New York and Pennsylvania and enrolled at 17 in Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “I was too young,” she says, “and I was having too much fun to be serious,” so after a year she took off for New York.
She lived there until 1977, when the lure of TV work drew her to LA. Her mother is Edith O’Hara, who continues to run her 13th Street Repertory Company in New York at the age of 94.
Ullett, meanwhile, had grown up in England, going to school at Cambridge University, and rooming with John Cleese and Eric Idle. He came to America in the ‘70s as half of the comedy team Hendra and Ullett, and toured successfully all over the country, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Eventually, when the act broke up (“Tony [Hendra] didn’t really like performing on stage,” Ullett says), Hendra became a writer and editor and Ullett went into advertising. “The man who hired me at J. Walter Thompson in 1972 was an Anglophile and a comedy writer,” Ullett notes, “and I went from being a copywriter and producer to the creative director of the L.A. office.” By 1979 he was a vice president of the company. “I was being groomed for the corporate life, and it worried me,” he says.
And so he went to Playboy (“a bizarre operation”) to head their in-house advertising department. He was also manager of the Singing Playmates: “four well-endowed ladies who couldn’t sing a note,” he explains.
Ullett and O’Hara started living together in LA in 1984, but they soon got jobs in New York. In 1985 Ullett returned to acting in The Importance of Being Earnest (with Cherry Jones) and then Joe Orton’s play Loot on Broadway. At the same time, O’Hara was starring on Broadway in the female version of The Odd Couple. Ullett and O’Hara set up housekeeping in the dressing room over her mother’s studio. “We had dinner parties in this tiny room,” he says, “and to get to it you had to scramble over the roof of the theater.”
They were married in 1986, as Ullett was in between the LA tryout and the Broadway previews of what would become a three-year job in Me and My Girl. O’Hara was in LA during much of this period, beginning work on the My Sister Sam series, but Ullett was able to leave New York briefly to be with O’Hara at the birth of their first child, Sophie, in Los Angeles. (Sophie Ullett is now an up-and-coming actress herself.)
Finally working together (although never in the same scene), O’Hara played Ilona in She Loves Me and he played the headwaiter in productions in Florida and then at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa in 1990. “I had a fabulous song, ‘A Romantic Atmosphere,’ at the end of the first act,” he says, “and for ten minutes I killed! I considered it the best job in show business.”
Tragedy struck when Ullett developed cancer. Choosing to be treated at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, he underwent a bone marrow transplant and other critical care that has allowed him to survive the disease and remain cancer-free for 19 years. In the meantime, O’Hara and Sophie returned to New York to be able to visit him, and O’Hara got a job as a director on the iconic soap opera As The World Turns. “When they train you as a director, they don’t pay you,” Ullett notes, “so they quickly wrote her into the script so she could get paid as an actress.”
When she was told at a Christmas party in 1992 that the role of a butler was coming up on the series, she suggested that the recovering Ullett try out for it. He not only got the part but stayed with it for a year and a half as the writers developed him into a butler/killer. Finally, when he and O’Hara decided to return to L.A., the writers were confronted with the task of writing them both out of the script. They did it by having the two attend a wedding where they decided to get married themselves. “So we left the wedding and eloped and were never seen again,” O’Hara explains with a laugh.
All of this is documented in Ullett’s one-man show Dying Is Easy…Comedy is Hard, which he wrote and performed at the Matrix Theatre last fall.
Apparently, dancing is hard, too. Ullett tells the story of his dancing stint in Me and My Girl. “I was far too old for the part, and I couldn’t dance to save my life—I’m English,” he says by way of explanation. “But the rest of the troupe was wonderfully kind and helpful in teaching me to tap dance, even though they knew I was useless.
“The main problem was that I never developed any muscle memory. When you’ve been dancing all your life, your body automatically moves into the right groove. But mine didn’t. So one night, after I’d been doing the role for about six months, my body just forgot everything. There they were, 31 players lined up onstage to give me my big introduction with their outflung arms—ta da!—and 2,000 people in the audience waiting expectantly, and I just stood there, frozen. So eventually I started leaping around, kicking my legs out and waving my arms, while the cast behind me made chortling and choking noises, trying to smother their laughter.
“In fact,” he adds, “I’ve never been in a production that didn’t have some kind of a disaster. Another time in Me and My Girl a huge light fell out of the ceiling and broke onstage. It could have killed someone. And what’s more, it was during an outdoor scene. So we all tiptoed delicately around it, going on with our business, until finally the actor who played a butler came onstage with a broom and dustpan and swept it all up. The audience loved it.”
“There was always something unexpected going on on My Sister Sam, too,” O’Hara adds. She played Pam Dawber’s assistant, Dixie Randazzo, on that 1986-88 TV series. Dawber, who had become a star on the sitcom Mork and Mindy, “was really rowdy and loads of fun,” O’Hara says. “She even got Mork (Robin Williams) to come in one time and do the audience warm-up.”
In addition to their television and stage careers, O’Hara and Ullett are members of Los Angeles’ Theatre Tribe Theatre Company and the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York and L.A. “The Ensemble Studio Theatre here in L.A. has two 99-seat theaters in a new complex in Atwater Village,” Ullett says enthusiastically, “and it’s just a love fest to perform there.”
The two have made extensive appearances in California theater: O’ Hara played in Our Mother’ s Brief Affair at South Coast Repertory and in Theater Tribe’s A Skull in Connemaraand Book of Days, as well as The Body of Bourne at the Taper. Ullett’ s LA credits include playing the Pinball Wizard in The Who’ s Tommy at the Aquarius Theatre, as well as a stint as one of Murphy Brown’ s more bizarre secretaries. O’Hara and Ullett both appeared in The Last Seder in 2008 at the Greenway Court.
Meanwhile, Sachs’ new play Bakersfield Mist, after its world premiere at the Fountain, will go on, through an affiliation with the National New Play Network, which sets up play readings for small regional theaters, to performances in eight regional theaters around the country.
Ullett will next be seen in Geezers, a film that has been accepted for the Toronto Film Festival in which he plays “the head of a crime family with tremendous joie de vivre.” And O’Hara has three upcoming films currently in post-production: Sassy Pants, The Sacred, and Unfair and Imbalanced.
As the interview winds down, O’Hara sums up their marriage and careers: “We have had a great life together,” she declares with a satisfied sigh.